Saturday, 31 August 2013

Place settings

Luke 14:1;7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

There was a discussion among some of my colleagues this week about how effective was our pastoral ministry when it so often consisted of simply having a cup of tea and a blether with folks.
That might not sound very effective.
It may not even sound like it's the best use of time - and certainly many of my younger colleagues felt that way.
And yet, isn't it the way that Jesus went about his ministry?
In calling folk into the Kingdom, whether gently or with challenge and even, at times, ridicule, Jesus liked to do it over supper, dinner, a picnic lunch, a barbecue, a wedding feast.
Table fellowship was important to him.
I've said time and again, that the days I find most fulfilling in ministry are those days when I've sat in folks' homes and shared coffee, admired their pictures of loved ones, been privy to awards that hang on their wall or paintings stuck on their fridge, mementoes that tell stories, some of which are shared, some that don't need to be - but all part of the bigger picture of the person with whom I'm sharing.
(It's also the reason that I fight a constant battle against weight gain- often those coffees are accompanied by home baking or other temptations!)
Sharing table fellowship deepens relationship.
Or it can - if we allow it.
Jesus got to know all sorts of things about people by sharing round their tables.
And they got to know him.
And so relationships were formed through which Jesus could show his compassion, through which Jesus could offer challenge and through which Jesus could even rebuke.
It's a simple fact that folk are more likely to listen if connections have been made, if a relationship has been formed.

At the beginning of the week, I was involved in a meeting.
There were about 12 of us around the table.
We shared coffee at the start of the meeting - most of us had travelled a fair way to get there - and then got down to business.
Since we all had a bit of a journey to get home, we decided to continue working through a sandwich lunch rather than take a break.
But as we all got what we wanted - tea, coffee, sandwiches, we caught up with each other, since there hadn't been the opportunity earlier.
I was mid conversation with someone when we realised that our colleague across the table was telling a joke - and the whole table stopped to listen.
Having shared with each other before, we recognised the change in tone - and we all knew it was worth holding off on our conversations to listen in to another.
That's what can happen in table fellowship - we can get distracted, or sucked in.
And that's not a bad thing.
It's good to be able to pick up on nuances, to catch the different emotions, to hear what is said - as well as what is not spoken out loud.

Lets never underestimate the power of a "wee cup of tea". - not just its cure all properties but its relationship forging ability and thus its gateway to loving and caring, to challenging and cajoling.
Jesus not only practiced table fellowship but used it to illustrate the Kingdom of God.
In the gospel passage we read, he was at a meal and he used the meal as a lesson on how we should be hospitable to others.
Jesus took the table plan of the meal in which he shared to teach his followers how to practice humility and how to find honour.
It would be better, Jesus told them, to sit at a lowlier place and be moved up than to take a higher place and be moved down.
We can all see that.
Even today, that makes sense.
But Jesus goes on to say that we should think carefully too about whom we invite.
Our invitation shouldn't just go to those who are likely to return the favour - but should extend beyond those bounds to those whom we know will never be able to repay our hospitality.
Now there's a challenge.
Would we be comfortable partying the night away with those who are "not like us"?
Of course we wouldn't.
When we have down time and want to chill with friends.
Or when we have something we want to share with others.
When we want to celebrate- we want to choose carefully those who are allowed in on the celebrations.
We want to choose carefully those in whom we invest our time and our effort and our hospitality.
And that's not just about them perhaps on some future occasion returning the compliment and extending an invitation to us.
That's about who we would feel comfortable with.
And while, on the odd occasion, we might just push our boundaries a bit.
While we might now and again share with someone very different from us - that would be an exception rather than the norm.
We can blame our busy lives.
We can blame our lack of free time.
We can cite many reasons why we feel the need to guard our table fellowship and restrict it to those whose company we know we will enjoy.
Still, Jesus calls us to something different.

I wondered about Jesus' table companions in this gospel story today.
In our gospel today, Jesus is eating with one of the Pharisees - a leader - not one of the people on the fringes that we often see Jesus associating with - or perhaps the "leader of the Pharisees", because of his position, is as much on the fringe as the more obvious folk with whom Jesus eats - the tax collector, the prostitute, the leper...
Folk become isolated as much because of their status as because of their lack of status.
And Jesus manages to embrace either and all.
He could get down and dirty or he could scrub up nicely.
Either way, he would embrace those with whom he shared.
Not blending in - that was never Jesus' style.
But meeting folk everywhere, however lowly or mighty with the challenge of discipleship, the challenge of inclusivity, the challenges that being part of the Kingdom of God demands.

We gather this morning to share table fellowship.
And Jesus meets us here.
Not unobtrusively but right in our faces.
Jesus, in relationship with us, reads us all too well.
Jesus meets us here - with compassion, with challenge, with ridicule and with rebuke - whatever we need, is here in this table fellowship.
Sharing table fellowship deepens relationship.
Or it can if we allow it.
As we share today, may we find ourselves becoming more open to those around us.
More open to their pain, their joy, their companionship, their hidden depths, their shyness, their awkwardness, their familiarity and their strangeness.
May we give thanks for the stories we have shared and hold gently the stories that may never be spoken out loud.
And in all of this, may we find ourselves becoming more open to the ways of the Kingdom that Jesus sets before us.

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Saturday, 24 August 2013

Standing up straight

Luke 13:10-17
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

When we read this passage today, we do so with no small measure of contempt. We are outraged at how the synagogue officials could be so short sighted, preferring their rules that kept folk down and in control to the freedom offered by Jesus.
We see immediately how their view of Gods word and of God's world is self limiting and confining.
And, when we've stopped being outraged by them, perhaps we might even pity them.
That they are so straight laced, so buttoned up. That they fail to see the extraordinary freedom that Jesus offers, mirroring the will of God- that all should know freedom from all that keeps us down, from all that stops us loving life in all its fulness.
It IS outrageous that anyone should want to be limiting or prescriptive with the amazing love and the incredible Spirit of God.
We do well to be outraged.
But wait a minute.
What about all those times that we behave just as the leaders of the synagogue did?
What about all those times when we find ourselves being inflexible?
When we insist on sticking to the letter of the law instead of the spirit?
What about all those conditions we impose that seek to limit the life giving, freedom bringing, full on loving gifts of healing that God holds out to us?
How often do we find ourselves saying...
You can't do that...
You're not old enough or, indeed - you're too old
That's not the way we do it...
That would never work...
How often do we find ourselves saying:
Been there, tried that, got the T shirt...
When we make these statements, aren't we being just as inflexible as the leaders of the synagogue who witnessed something good and lovely but couldn't allow it because, among other things, they weren't part of it.
So, before we condemn those leaders, lets step back and see the similarities in our actions today, clinging to all those rules that we hold dear.
And, when we catch ourselves about to proclaim - you can't do that, lets bite our tongues and appreciate all who contribute in all sorts of different ways to the work of the kingdom.
When we find ourselves excluding others because we have our own carefully worked out system, lets take a step back.
Who knows, we might find an even better way to get something done when we let others play too.
Jesus has just done something incredible when he cops all this flak.
He has just healed a woman who couldn't stand up straight for many years.
What's to get angry about in that?
But, as well as noting how uptight those around him get at him flouting rules, I also want to ask of this passage:
What about all those daughters and sons of Abraham who do not find healing from their ailments, who are not able to suddenly stand up straight.
The way this story is told, it would seem that you have to be able to stand up straight to praise God.
And we know that that is certainly not the truth.
How many folk do you know who are willing to praise God in all manner of trying circumstances.
How many people do you know who are constantly bent out of shape, physically and emotionally by all that life throws at them and yet continue to give God praise.
What is that that allows such people, even in the midst of difficulty, to consider themselves still beloved of God?
Perhaps it's the fact that as they look down, they don't only see the things that other folk discard and trample underfoot.
They are able to glimpse glory in the glaur.
To see reflected in the mud the image of stars.
To see shimmering on the puddles the outline of the rainbow.
Their perspective is different from ours but it is enhanced by their experience - whether that be the experience of trial or exclusion, of being invisible or discarded, whether it be the experience of pain or loss, the experience affords them depth and insight.
Our gospel today, though it speaks of physical appearance, takes us to a much deeper place.
A place where rules are broken, where conformity is cast aside.
A place where what you see is NOT what you get.
Because the love of God confounds expectation.
And allows miracles to happen.
Allows despair to become hope.
Allows dire straits to become places of possibility.
Allows the trials of life to become places of growth.
And allows those on whom we would look down or pity to teach us the most valuable lessons about life and about the transforming love of God.
We're very good at jumping to conclusions.
At deciding how things will turn out before we've even given them a chance.
At dismissing the possibility of being surprised by joy
We're bent down by rules and expectations.
Just as burdened as the Daughter of Abraham whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath.
And when we close ourselves off to new possibilities we limit that slow winding work of God.
Lets see ourselves today as those folk we shake our heads over - the leaders of the synagogue.
Lets acknowledge that our clinging to rules and our trampling on dreams consign us firmly into the same category, even when we think we're doing our best to protect the traditions of our faith.
God does not need our protection.
But even as we are chastened, lets give thanks that there will always be sons and daughters of Abraham such as the one in our gospel today who will challenge and confront, who will go on seeing the best in all things and who will always mirror for us the love of God that is not stifled by our smallness of heart.
And let us be prepared to listen to another perspective, to view things through a different lens and, in it all, to know our rule breaking God bringing freedom, bringing healing and bringing joy.
Thanks be to God.
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Saturday, 3 August 2013

A gospel of grace

Luke 12:13-21
The Parable of the Rich Fool
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable:“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? ’ Then he said, ‘I will do this:I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. ’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

I've just spent a few days on Iona. A very restful few days. In many ways, Iona is just another Scottish island, with its white sandy beaches, subject to the vagaries of Scottish weather, whatever the season, and with its resident community fighting for survival, trying to preserve a fragile economy and ecology while yet welcoming visitors and offering lavish highland hospitality. But, in other ways, Iona is, for many people, a very special island, a place of spiritual retreat offering rest and renewal. A thin place - a place where the divide between heaven and earth is very fine indeed.
We stayed in the Episcopal Retreat Centre, where the day started with Holy Communion and ended with Evening Prayers, all of which seemed a fitting rhythm, a backdrop to the wonder of creation unfolding all around us - in the people, from all over the world, with whom we shared meals and stories and companionship and in the raw island beauty, birds and animals and wildflowers and tides and weather.
This simple rhythm of life and of love made me think of how busy and cluttered we allow life to become. And of how, in that clutter, much of what gives life is squeezed out.
And, instead of that cycle of prayer and worship giving rhythm to life, it becomes a fevered punctuation that we insert, often as an after thought or in the least appropriate moments, bringing a jarring discord rather than resolute harmony.
It's tempting to imagine that it is much easier on an island - especially one as breathtaking as Iona to give ourselves over to the simple things of life, to better appreciate creation and the God who is at the centre of all things, to de-clutter so that our focus is on the things, or, more likely, the people, who are central to our lives. But the idyll of remoteness brings its own pressures, not least the pressure to stay connected with life beyond the physical boundaries.
One night, over supper, we got talking about the grace of God. And of how we in the church, while we might ( though not always) proclaim that the amazing grace of God is free, we don't often live as though we are convinced.
Rather, we signal that the gospel to which we subscribe is a prosperity gospel - where we, the deserving people of God are rewarded for our labour and for just being generally good folks. We take pride in all that we have achieved. We acknowledge that, yes, God has a hand in that, but only because we are such worthy receivers of Gods grace.
And the problem is that, bad enough as that is as a premise, that kind of supposition, that acceptance of Gods goodness as being no more than our proper entitlement doesn't stop there but spills over into denying those in need any sharing of our deserved wealth - because clearly those not as fortunate as us are quite simply not as deserving. And we wouldn't want to share our hard earned desserts with those who do not find favour with God as we do.
That sounds pretty grim, doesn't it?
We'd be quick to deny that the gospel we live by is anything less than grace filled.
But our actions, or lack of them, speak louder than our words.
And our constant battle to acquire the symbols of status that show us to be favoured by God testify to something other than the gospel our words proclaim.
And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
So what does it take for us to shake off something instilled in us with our mother's milk? How can we strive less to own more?
How can we stop ourselves from judging and looking down on others whom God has not blessed as well as us?
Everyday I have the privilege of walking alongside many of you who have learned and are learning that lesson well.
Every day I have cause to thank God for you who show me a new way of being, who, even and especially in the face of hardship and adversity trust in God to carry you and, in the waiting and in the living, find cause to give thanks.
Those of you who do not shut God out but rest in Gods promises even and especially in the darkest of times.
Those of you for whom prayer and worship are not mere interruptions to the daily cycle but the very fibre of your being, as important as breathing, and just as instinctive.
Tides and seasons.
Living and loving.
Breathing and praying.
The rhythm of grace filled lives bathed in the grace of God, founded on the companionship of love.
Not based on earthly possessions but grounded in all the riches of God.
An abundance freely given to be freely shared.
Thanks be to God.
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